September 11, 1973, a military coup brought a dictator to power in Chile. As part of the coup, killing squads were sent to murder supporters of the prior government. On September 19th, a death squad came for 31 year old Fr. Juan Alsina, the Spanish priest who ran San Juan de Dios Hospital.
It was common for shooters to take their victims to a bridge and make them face away. Once the deed was done, the body would be dropped into the river below.
When they positioned the blindfolded, hand-bound priest on the edge of the Bulnes Bridge, he asked them to remove the blindfold. “I want to face you so that I can give you my forgiveness.” Then he lifted his eyes to heaven and said, “Father, forgive them…”
Forgiveness. It’s a powerful thing, isn’t it? And, whether giving it or receiving it, it’s hard. Very, very hard.
In today’s Gospel lesson, it’s Peter who seems to long for forgiveness. Jesus has been crucified, resurrected, and has appeared to the disciples. After telling the story of Thomas’ struggle to believe, John sounds like he’s wrapping things up. “Jesus did many other signs…which are not written in his book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that believing, you may have life in his name.” Doesn’t that just scream for a “The End?” But like the end of a Beethoven symphony, the story doesn’t end where you think it will. John has one last story to tell.
The scene opens with 9 of the remaining disciples chilling at the beach. John doesn’t tell us why. Maybe they were still processing everything that had happened. Maybe they were trying to figure out what to do next. At some point, Peter hops up and says, “I’m going fishing.” That’s what he did before Jesus called him, right? He was a fisherman. Perhaps in the midst of his grief, he was just going back to what he knew. All that discipling and sharing God’s love had been good, but Jesus was gone now. What’s a follower to do without a leader?
So Peter tells the others, “I’m going fishing.” They jump up and say, “We’ll go, too,” and follow Peter to the boats. They all shove off from the shore and head out to fish.
You know the story—“Fished all night and caught no fishes…” At dawn, a figure appears on shore and tells them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat. They do and their nets nearly break from the haul of fish. When the disciples reach the shore dragging their heavy nets, Jesus is waiting for them, frying up some breakfast. They break bread together.
After breakfast, Jesus asks Peter three times whether he loves him. “Yes, Lord, I love you. I love you. I love you.” Three times Jesus tells Peter to feed his sheep and tend his lambs.
Why three times? Ah, yes. A literary parallel to the three times Peter denied Jesus the night before Jesus was crucified.
Another familiar story. The night before his crucifixion, Jesus gathered with the 12 for the Passover seder. In the course of the meal, Peter tells Jesus he would die for him. “Will you lay down your life for me?” Jesus asks. “I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times.” After the meal, they walk to the garden and pray. Then Judas shows up with the religious leaders. Jesus is arrested. Terrified, the disciples scatter.
We don’t know where the other disciples go, but Peter follows the entourage escorting Jesus. When the group enters the house of the high priest, Peter stays in the courtyard, where others are standing around a fire. First one, then another, then a third person all identify Peter as one of Jesus’ disciples. He denies it. “I do not know the man!” Then the cock crows.
Peter denied knowing Jesus three times. And now, the risen Jesus gives Peter three chances to re-affirm his love. The Gospel writer intends us to make the connection between Peter’s three denials and Jesus’ three invitations to receive his forgiveness…but why? If the story seemed complete already, why go to the trouble of tacking on this P.S.?
Perhaps it’s because Peter needed to be forgiven. Why had Jesus initially called the disciples? So they could learn from him while he was alive and then continue his work after he was gone. “As God sent me, so I send you,” Jesus said the first time he appeared to them after his resurrection. “I will make you fishers of people,” he’d said, when he first called them.
What were the disciples doing the morning Jesus took his stroll on the beach—fishing for people? No, they were fishing for fish. Jesus had sent them out, but they hadn’t gone. John had tried to tie things up with a bow, but the disciples weren’t cooperating.
So, God bless him, Jesus has to show up one more time…which he does. And he does the thing that’s necessary to getting the disciples up and working–he forgives Peter.
John doesn’t tell us Peter was longing for forgiveness. And Peter certainly doesn’t say anything. The need to be forgiven…it’s not something we talk about, is it? Usually, when we’ve hurt someone, we’re embarrassed, ashamed. So, we keep it to ourselves, hoping it’ll just go away, that people will forget, that we can forget this hurtful thing we’ve done.
Trouble is, when we feel guilty about something we done, if we don’t find forgiveness, the need for it will manifest itself in some way—in a lack of joy, in depression, in pathological do-gooding, in physical ailments. If we don’t release the things we feel guilty about, they fester and prevent us from living life as fully as we can. That’s why we offer a prayer of confession every week in worship—so we can confess our failings to God and receive forgiveness.
Peter’s need for forgiveness manifests itself as a reluctance to take up the mantle of leadership. If the God movement was going to continue after Jesus was gone, it was going to need a leader. Peter’s gifts and experiences made him uniquely qualified to be that leader. As soon as he says, “I’m going fishing,” the other disciples immediately follow him to the boats.
Peter is a born leader. We know it. The disciples know it. Jesus knows it. The only person who doesn’t seem to know it is Peter. And if he doesn’t get that message, the God Movement will die.
Maybe the reason Peter can’t yet see himself as the leader the movement needs him to be is because, deep down, he’s holding onto his denial of Jesus, beating himself up with it, letting it limit the possibilities he sees for his future. And maybe those feelings are down so deep that Peter isn’t even aware of them. But if he doesn’t get aware and receive forgiveness, the God movement will never get off the ground… …so, Jesus does the one thing necessary to see that his work of sharing the good news of God’s love continues: he forgives Peter.
The first time I heard the story of Fr. Juan Alsina’s offer of forgiveness to his assassins, it didn’t compute. How could he possibly have done that—offer forgiveness to the people about to riddle his body with bullets? After spending some time with Peter and his need for forgiveness, I think I understand a little better—the priest was a priest until the end. He understood the power of forgiveness. He understood that those young men with the guns were all caught in a web of treachery they hadn’t created. In a real way, they too were victims. If their humanity had any chance of surviving, they were going to need to be forgiven.
The only reason the story of Fr. Juan’s forgiveness is known is because one of the shooters—who was only 18 at the time of the coup—years later made confession to his priest. He affirmed the story in the trial for the Colonel who ordered the assassination. Tragically, the shooter—Nelson Banados was his name—was not able to receive Fr. Juan’s forgiveness. Like Judas, when the full weight of what he’d done hit him, he took his own life.
Peter was able to receive Jesus’ forgiveness and, I suspect, to forgive himself. We are the proof. Peter didn’t retire as a fisherman. He led the disciples and lived the faith. He was so faithful, in fact, that he died a martyr. It’s doubtful Peter would have lived out the life he was born to live had he not received forgiveness and released his guilt. If Peter hadn’t received Jesus’ forgiveness, it’s doubtful we would be here today, celebrating our Christian faith as so many Christians before us have done….going all the way back to the first leader of the church—Peter.
Are you longing for forgiveness today? Is the weight of harmful things you’ve said or done preventing you from living the life you were meant to live? Is your need to receive forgiveness robbing you of joy?
If so, I invite you to sing with me hymn #449, “Softly and Tenderly Jesus Is Calling.” May these words become real for you. May you take them in. May you find a way to “come home.”
Congregation sings “Softly and Tenderly.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B_6s6lRPPBQ
In the name of our God, who creates us redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2016